Fairy Tales Are Good to Think With

The world of Snow White and Rumplestiltskin: a heated zone where people argue (from the San Diego Union Tribune)

In 1812 the Grimm Brothers published the first edition of their famous collection of fairy tales (“Kinder und Hausmärchen”) with its stories about Cinderella, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty and their fairytale kin. Last February [2012], to celebrate the two-hundred-year anniversary, Harvard University hosted a convention and invited the assembled guests to consider what accounts for the timeless appeal of these abbreviated classics. My own answer: Fairy tales are good to think with.

As an example, consider the current brouhaha surrounding the La Jolla Playhouse’s staging of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale.” Given that the musical is set in China, Asian-American actors have objected that only two of twelve roles have gone to performers of Asian descent. On the other hand and apologetic, the producers have argued that the show is better because of color-blind casting and a crew of multi-ethnic actors.

Since “The Nightingale” is part of the La Jolla Playhouse’s “Page to Stage Program” and still evolving, it’s hard to know how this controversy will eventually shake out; indeed, the Playhouse views the musical as a work-in-progress and hosts public discussions after each performance. That said, it may be obvious that the issue being discussed here (representation versus color-blindness) is a familiar one; for example, the very same topic will be taken up this Fall when the Supreme Court considers affirmative action. My point is that fairy tales are a site for this discussion.

Indeed, it may seem surprising at first, but the world of Snow White and the Frog Prince and Rumplestiltskin is often a heated zone where people push their particular agendas. Take the Grimm Brothers, for instance: distressed by the occupation of their country by the French, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm advocated the recovery and telling of fairy tales as a patriotic gesture because they saw these ancient stories as expressions of the Volk and especially Germanness.

Or take Bruno Bettelheim, who saw these stories embodying Freudian developmental theories that parents should pay attention to; it is not without reason that he called his book on the fairy tales “The Uses of Enchantment.” Or take early feminists who, when they wanted to point to what was wrong with patriarchal culture, criticized Snow White’s passivity and objected that Disney’s Cinderella can’t even dress herself without the help of mice.

Hans Christian Andersen was certainly pushing his own agenda when he wrote “The Nightingale.” It was written at the height of the Romantic Movement when bohemians were turning establishment values upside down: so, Andersen celebrates peasants over nobility, children over adults, the countryside over the court, and so on. In a word, Andersen’s theme in this story is the Natural versus the Artificial; and his preference is made clear by contrasting a real nightingale with a clockwork nightingale, the one singing beautifully and spontaneously in the countryside while the other is mechanical and predictable and stupidly preferred by the fashionable set at the Emperor’s court.

This is the story taken up by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik (book and music) and Moisés Kaufman (Director) in the current musical version of “The Nightingale” at the La Jolla Playhouse. To be sure, theirs is a “loose translation” of Andersen’s tale and the production is still evolving but, in general, this version adds a coming-of-age story to Andersen’s fervid advocacy of the Natural over the Artificial.

Since Sater and Sheik were the minds behind “Spring Awakening,” a Tony-Award-winning play that also featured coming-of-age-stories, we should not be surprised that they have refashioned Andersen’s work so that we now follow the maturation of the young Emperor. Buddha-like, he has grown up entirely within the castle walls of San Souci and knows nothing about the larger world of the poor outside his pleasure dome. But thanks to his infatuation with a peasant girl and a magical glowing book (which seems to resemble an iPad), he learns about that other world once he ignores his disapproving mother and leaves his castle–coming out, as it were.

In this way, this new version of “The Nightingale” joins a host of other recent offerings where the fairy tales–once seen as the exclusive property of children–have become a favored locale for adolescents and the coming-of-age story. Last year there were the films “Beastly” (a modern-day riff on “Beauty and the Beast” featuring a misunderstood and heavily tattooed high-school student as the Beast) and Red Riding Hood” (directed by Catherine Hardwicke of the vampire-driven “Twilight” franchise and aimed at the same demographic by making the story’s villain into a werewolf). Now fairy tales seem everywhere: on television (“Grimm” and “Once Upon a Time”) and in movie theaters (where this month’s “Snow White and the Huntsman” starring Charlize Theron replaces an incarnation of the same tale from the month before, “Mirror, Mirror” starring Julia Roberts).

In other eras, authors depended upon an audience’s wide familiarity with the Bible or Greek myths to understand their jibes and allusions and to make their points. Nowadays–when we mention a “Cinderella story” or refer to someone as an “Ugly Duckling”–it becomes clear that fairy tales are what we have in common. For this reason, too, fairy tales are good to think with.

Originally appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune (July 29, 2012). A few days later, on August 5, I was part of a community discussion of “The Nightingale” at the La Jolla Playhouse.


24. February 2016 by
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